You may not know it, but most of the laughs in modern American comedy were being put together years ago between 22nd and 29th Streets in Manhattan. Many of the best comedy performers that you see across HBO, Netflix, and what’s left of broadcast television, not to mention the writers working with them, did at least some time in New York’s improv-comedy scene. The institutions that sustain those laughs, like everything else dependent on the nightly take, are mortally ill because of COVID-19.
Lots of great comedic actors were part of the Groundlings in Los Angeles, or of the Second City Theater in Chicago. But starting in the late 1990s, a veritable Tin Pan Alley of comedy grew up across several small improv joints in Manhattan. These institutions make their money charging the up-and-coming performers for classes and training workshops, then charge audiences a few bucks to see them. There’s the People’s Improv Theater — “the PIT” — on East 24th Street, and the Magnet Theater on West 29th. But the flagship and first of its generation was the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre — just “UCB” — which lived most of its life on West 26th Street.
Last week, UCB announced it would close and shut down its New York space. It can’t keep paying New York’s early-Trump-era rents during COVID-era lockdowns that prevent classes and shows from happening. While the principals insist that they intend to stay in New York, the pandemic puts the entire enterprise in mortal danger.
UCB was named after the comedy troupe and short-lived Comedy Central sketch show featuring Amy Poehler (Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec), Matt Walsh (Mike from HBO’s Veep), Ian Roberts (who had a hand performing or writing in almost everything funny since 2001), and Matt Besser (similar). They were students of the man credited with inventing long-form improv, Del Close. Veterans of UCB include Saturday Night Live performers such as Horatio Sanz, comic actors such as Rob Huebel, and Hollywood director, producer, and comedy writer Adam McKay, who did almost everything Will Ferrell starred in plus The Big Short.
Standup is the pro-golf circuit of comedy. Endless rounds of individual performances, until the singular genius has honed his or her skills to the point of featuring in a closeup shot in a televisual event. Improv comedy is more like pickup basketball, in which good team players who can pass the ball and understand the open lanes on the court are both coveted as teammates and rewarded.
Del Close wrote that “many actors don’t understand the difference between a joke and a laugh. A joke is only one way — and seldom the best way — to get a laugh.” Close’s book had the slightly pompous title “Truth in Comedy.” If it had a message, it’s that what’s humor isn’t something that is superadded to a normal human. What’s funny are the human things that we can’t help but do. You’re seeing something of Close’s ideal in Adam McKay movies such as Anchorman, which came out a few years after Close’s death. Anchorman relied heavily on improv on the set, as the performers tried to find the truth in their cartoonish characters. Ron Burgundy can’t help bloviating and admiring himself. His rival Wes Mantooth can’t help but be jealous, and can’t help honoring his beloved mother, Dorothy. The mentally handicapped weatherman Brick Tamland loves lamp. He can’t help it. That’s not a joke, not exactly, but it is funny.
My best friend from high school threw himself into the broader New York improv scene over a decade ago, eventually landing on the team Big Black Car at the PIT. One of his teammates worked in finance. Some held typical entertainers’ jobs, such as waitressing. Others just became famous, a few months or years after I saw them. My friend’s team members included Ellie Kemper (who went on to join The Office and was in Bridesmaids) and Kristen Schaal before she joined Flight of the Conchords. We’d have our laughs at the PIT, then decamp to the Triple Crown around the corner and make plans for when we’d next hit UCB. However, among our friends, I got a reputation as a “cooler” whose presence in the audience almost guaranteed a weak show. Also, I was too young and broke to take the train into the city every week to see him.
But in those moments I learned that the helpless idiots in Adam McKay movies were just larger-than-life versions of the comedic players showing up at improv classes, learning how to transform their insecurities, their obsessions, and their malformed characters into something hilarious.
The great joy of improv comedy is that it is a kind of private matter between the performers and the audience. That relationship is established in the first seconds, when a performer from the group asks the audience for a suggestion. Usually one member of that audience shouts it clearly, and the great performers receive the simple noun or verb as a gift. They build on it and play a few structured games of imagination with that one-word suggestion, and the results of those games become the themes and even the plot points to come. Trying to explain the storylines, character arcs, and double-backing plot twists that develop over the course of a half-hour performance is almost futile; it can be enjoyed only as an in-joke.
There is no delicate way to describe it, but the best performances at UCB had a kind of hormonal quality. While the players on stage have lots of practice at accepting and building on new premises, while they are usually working within a format that gives them a reassuring sense of structure and chances for serendipity, this is still a comedy high-wire act without a net. You can often feel the adrenaline in the air as they dare themselves, one another, and the audience to go deeper together. An absurd premise will be joined to a few odd characters, and then it’s all rigged to some universal features and clichés in human storytelling. The greatest improv acts wrap up so many divergent plot lines and gags into a finale that it feels as if it had been authored by a genius. Except, of course, no sound mind would have tried something so stupid, deranged, or marvelous as the thing you just witnessed.
In 2004 my friends and I went to the UCB theater for the St. Paddy’s Day performance of a group mostly made up of Boston-area comics called “Wicked F***in’ Queeyah.” Already the star members of the group were actual stars of comedic performance on screen. Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler were then cast members of Saturday Night Live. Rob Corddry, now on HBO’s Ballers, was a Daily Show regular and had just been in Old School with Will Ferrell. But just as much their equals were Jackie Clarke, Jason Mantzoukas, and Ari Voukydis, a teacher at the theater.
This was a performance given during the playoff season when Pedro Martinez slammed Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer into the ground, and when the Sox made their curse-breaking comeback against New York. The members of Wicked F***in’ Queeyah all came onstage wearing “Yankees Suck” T-shirts and flipping the audience the bird, radiating their mock contempt and resentment of the audience.
The twist that night was that they introduced themselves under different stage names and a different improv-group name. The premise was that they were a bad improv group falling apart and falling out with one another live on stage, rather than what they were, a rare collection of the funniest people on planet Earth, at the zenith of their talent. It gave this show a photo-negative quality. Normally, when performers on a stage acknowledge the existence of an audience, or the fact that they are performing — when they “break the fourth wall” — they rob believability from the show itself. But in this case, every time one of them laughed inappropriately, or commented on the joke another player made, they reinforced the premise: that they were just drunken unfunny idiots, their mutual jealousies, secret crushes, and betrayed friendships undoing them on stage. They played it as if they had been given this Paddy’s Day gig by some great cosmic mistake or malice. Which just made us love them more.
All that I can say is that by the time my friends and I emerged from the dark onto the chilly and damp streets, my jaw and face were hot and sore from laughing, as if everything between my diaphragm and my teeth had been through a death march of hilarity. Attempting to describe the bits that emerged in that show, the spur-of-the-moment genius callbacks, is not just impossible as an act of memory, it would be a kind of betrayal of confidence. That show was just for the people who showed up that night, the performers and the audience.
Improv comedy was already under challenge from the Internet. Comedians can go right to social media as an alternative sphere for comedy performance and promote their work on YouTube and other platforms. And Twitter itself has emerged as a surprising cultural antagonist, making audiences and performers alike too cautious and calculating to find the truth in comedy. But could it really begin to vanish from the city?
In those years after 9/11, these small improv theaters felt like the vital part of New York to me, the place where American culture’s nerve endings were still exposed. What CBGB’s had been to the much smaller cults around punk rock and Talking Heads, UCB was to laughter itself. And I can’t bear the thought that a generation of young people coming to the city after this calamity of a global pandemic may not have these little places — safe spaces of a different sort — where every form of personal pain, tragedy, anxiety, and neurosis is probed and turned into something so hilarious it is unrepeatable. What UCB taught me is that the truth in comedy is a truth of transfiguration.
This article appears as “The Day the Laughter Died” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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